On The Pursuit Of Victor Martinez

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

To the surprise of no one, Victor Martinez officially rejected his qualifying offer today. Such an event would only have made news had he rejected the offer in person, wearing some sort of Halloween costume or decorative hat. It was a certainty that he’d reject it, he did, and now it’s time to think about the future.

Earlier this winter, I suggested that the ideal course of action includes re-signing Martinez with the acknowledgement that they’ll be overpaying to some degree. If they are looking to punt on 2015 and rebuild, then you let him walk and take the pick, but if they want to give it a run next year, he’s likely one of the key targets.

Martinez figures to net himself a deal worth somewhere between 3/$45MM and 4/$80MM. That looks like a big range, but it’s 3-4 years at $15 million to $20 million per season. At the low end, you need 6.5 to 7.0 wins over three years. That’s 2-3 wins a season and that’s right in line with what the projections anticipate. If you can sign him for 3/$45MM, you’ll be perfectly happy.

At 4/$80MM, you’d start to fret. You need something like 11-12 wins over four years to make that work and that’s more like 3-4 wins a season, which is pushing what he can provide as a DH. On balance, once you factor in the draft pick loss, Martinez is going to make more money than he’s worth over the next three or four seasons in all likelihood.

If you’re trading completely liquid and fungible assets, you’d let him walk. There’s just no reason to make a bet that’s almost sure to return less than you invest. But the market for baseball players is slightly more complicated. Yes, the Tigers will likely pay Martinez more per win than the average price of a win over his deal, but the Tigers are also very interested in the acquisition of wins, period. They don’t have the choice to do nothing and achieve their goals. They either have to pay Martinez at a loss or find some other way to approximate his value for less. They, presumably, are not interested in letting 3-4 wins walk off their roster. Especially with Cabrera’s April in jeopardy and almost no chance of a complete repeat from JD Martinez.

The Tigers need a player of Martinez’s caliber. Or they need production matching what he brings. Can they find it elsewhere, or must they take the plunge?

The team is in a rough place, as their current roster is projected for a roughly .500 record for 2015. This is of course coming prior to any offseason moves, but they need to find 8-10 wins of real value and some protection for injuries they’re likely to incur. They’re in a position to add an outfielder, a DH, and some relief pitching. The NED plan calls for Peter Bourjos, Nick Markakis, VMart, and a slew of unsexy relievers. That probably gets you to your 8-10 wins.

If the Tigers don’t get Martinez, can they find someone else to fill the DH role who can match the production he brings? The Tigers only real options, holding everything else equal, would be to acquire Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, or Chase Headley and shuffle the roster in order to fit them in. Maybe you could get close enough with Adam LaRoche, but that likely requires moving Cabrera to DH and he probably won’t be receptive to that idea.

If we’re talking free agents, the there just isn’t a way to fill Martinez’s void at a lower cost given the Tigers current roster. Allen Craig, Yoenis Cespedes, one of the Dodgers, or Evan Gattis could be had on the market, and Billy Butler could come via free agency, but there’s a talent cost to acquire those players via trade. There’s potential, but nothing very attractive given the various warts.

In reality, Martinez is the player the Tigers need. There are other players that get the Tigers the requisite wins, but not really any that are obviously cheaper than Martinez and none with the side benefits he brings to the table.

Additionally, the Tigers have a slight financial edge in that they would only lose the compensation pick if they sign him, rather than a first round pick. This probably offers the Tigers an advantage of somewhere between $3 million and $10 million depending on the teams they’re competing with. Which is another key point. Who is in on VMart?

We know the Mariners and Blue Jays are in. The White Sox are likely as well. Texas? Houston? Perhaps. But no one else really makes sense. There’s no fit in New York or Boston for sure. Baltimore is probably thinking Cruz or bust on the DH. Tampa can’t pay him. Cleveland and Kansas City probably can’t afford him. Minnesota doesn’t really have a reason.

The Angels could, but they’re more in need of pitching and have two big contracts out to aging players already. That only leaves Oakland, who probably can’t pay him or use him in their system. So that’s three others for sure and maybe five total. There’s no NL market.

I know everyone is talking about $75 million or more, but I’m not sure it gets there. Three of those clubs have protected picks, which matters, but I’m not convinced the bidding gets quite so high. Are the Astros really ready to invest in a 36 year old DH? Do the Rangers want to block Fielder and Choo from taking turns at DH?

The Tigers are going to have to pay a little more than they should to get Martinez, but there’s not an obvious path back to 90 wins without him that’s much cheaper. It’s always possible, but it would need to be very creative. The Tigers like their stars. They like sluggers and forgo defense. Martinez makes sense, even if there’s a tax for their lifestyle choices coming due.

I won’t go so far as to say they must sign him or that they will, but it makes plenty of sense and they’re the best fit on paper for each other. Martinez is a joy to watch and until the hot stove heats up, we’ll have to leave it at that.

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